Monday, May 31, 2004


One of the obvious motos in Gospel Doctrine Lesson 21, is the difference between a monarchy and a democracy . Sometimes I really wonder why we are so convinced that the Nephite system of judges was similar to our current style of democracy?

Alma became the first chief judge and served simultaneously as high priest, governor, and military chief captain. Because these offices required the approval of the people, who had rejected monarchy, critics have tended to confuse the Nephite system with the democracy of the United States. However, there was no representative legislature, the essential institution in American republican ideology. Also, the major offices were typically passed from father to son, without elections (Bushman, pp. 14-17); "the voice of the people" is reported many times as authorizing or confirming leadership appointments and other civic or political actions.

By Noel Reynolds

Approving a group of people who enforce laws is not a democracy. As far as I can tell, the Nephites had no say in what the laws were. In fact, assuming that the Nephite system of judges arose due to the people’s righteousness is even a bit much of an assumption for me.

I think Sunday School lessons that emphasize apparent democratic parallels with the Book Of Mormon show a preconceived belief that democracy is always a superior system. I think the worldbank graph below,

taken from their excellent paper on the causes of civil war shows that perhaps we should be a bit more careful about our assumptions on the inerrancies of democracy.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Separation of Church and State

The motivation for the separation of between church and state seems pretty obvious, I think. However, it seems like people aren't really willing to face all the consequences of this decision. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, people want the freedom to have state support when and where they want it, and get rid of it when and where they want it. Like many issues in education, people seem to want to have their cake and eat it too. I think as a society we are spoiled. Idealistic liberalism can lead us to believe that living up to a new ideal is a way to avoid natural consequences.

The recent SSM debate shows us just how well people understand the degree to which we are affected by the morals of our society. In this case, many people want their moral views on the issue enforced by law. Whether or not these morals arise from religious conviction of social justice is really irrelevant. The more our beliefs are separated from our reality, the more unstable our position becomes. Like Jesus said, "ye cannot serve two masters". I think the conflict between church and state is typically not noticed because we are rather indifferent to the areas in which they overlap. To live in two worlds, indifference is un-avoidable. However, once we touch on issues that matter, friction occurs.

For us, hot topics may be SSM, abortion, Islamic fundamentalism, school prayer, creationsim, etc. But what were the hot topics during Alma's expansion of the church during Mosiah's reign (Mosiah 25-26)?

"therefore it became expedient that those who committed sin, that were in the church, should be admonished by the church"

I tend to think King Mosiah was cognizant of the difficulties associated with a large church (Mosiah 25, 19, Mosiah 26:12). This may be especially true if the heart of Nephite religion at this time was kept within a theocratic priest class. The problem Alma faced amounted to what we are experiencing now. What type of punishment should be given for actions that a specific group thinks are wrong, but others do not? In other words, where does the line between church and state blur? Is it all right for a church to stone a person committing adultery even if the state doesn't think so? Is it all right for someone to live a polygamous lifestyle if the state doesn't think so?

I think things get even more complicated if the tenets and beliefs of a religion are not well established. For instance, what should be done if a large sect of today's church starts believing that drinking coke is an abominable sin? What happens if the church hierarchy, perhaps like Alma (Mosiah 26:13), isn't ready to deal with the situation, and the people are demanding something get done?

Looking at this situation, it is interesting that Mosiah, whom we suppose to be the religious leader chose not to judge religious crimes. Why? Well perhaps he was politically astute enough to know that playing with religion and politics is a sure way to loose support of half your population. Perhaps the people were expecting religious crimes to be treated the same as societal crimes? With the literal way I see the mosiac law possibly being enacted, I find it rather easy to believe that the trouble Alma got into involved deciding what to do for sins for which God had given no clear punishment. For instance, if someone was to declare that God was a black jaguar that wasn't going to get resurrected, what do you do? To a church member, this heresy probably is as bad as adultery, but should the punishment be the same? I am sure some people would think so.

I find the solution to the problem quite interesting. The Lord doesn't give a legal answer. There is no mediation of sin. It is basically "if you are sorry, forgive him, if not, remove his name from the church". There is no attempt to maintain religious morals through law. In other words, we have religion running in the exact opposite way a state would. Perhaps this is why it was so easy for people in Chapter 27 to persecute the church. It had no bite, and hence no real power. The only power it could exert only occurred if you accepted it.

So does the separation of church and state make sense? I think it only matters when you have to choose between the distinct methods each use for behavioural control. Moral decisions are so personal any attempt to prevent religious interference runs the risk of religious tyranny. It basically removes a non-desirable group from the decision making process for no other reason than that their views are considered too unpopular. Whether or not this is done in the name of religious purity, and social liberalism is irrelevant. What matters is that if we try too hard to separate church and state, we may end up with a state that acts as much like a religion fundamentalist as any Islamic state. Of course those who are in the "in crowd" will never think so.

Friday, May 28, 2004


Well following in the footsteps of my brother I finally set things up for comments. I was a bit hesistant about this because I don't like the idea of people taking anything that I say too seriously. The main reason I write is to force me to think a bit more about my random thoughts. I don't really go into the "popularity" thing as determined by the number of hits. However... I thought I would try this for a while. I have a feeling I will be spending some more time talking about education as the end of school stress starts to mount.

I think I may also try and find a random picture to go with each post. This one is from last easter down in Boise. It was a fun kayaking trip, even if my brother did miss meeting us by 15minutes. Whoops.

Personally I find this picture funny because of just how cheesy it is. It reminds me of some of the worst album covers of all times (a few PG shots). If only I could make a kayaking video, I am sure this shot could be up there on the list.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

How to Develop A Bad Attitude

With the end of the school year coming to a close, students are busily dreaming of anything besides schoolwork. Patience is wearing as thin as the tank tops. What causes students, or people to reach the point where they stop caring? Perhaps an example or two will help explain.

A number of students in my class have absolutely no clue what is going on. They do not have any idea where we are in the textbook. They have not opened a book to take notes. They have no desire whatsoever to do work. All they want to do is sit and talk to their friends. They get rather frustrated where it is pointed out to them that this is not acceptable within the class. Thanks to the great social reform programs we have, successful teachers are somehow supposed to find a way to motivate these lost souls. We are supposed to find a way to make even the most wayward student come to appreciate the intricacies of geometry and simultaneous equations.

Normally a few tricks and techniques can make some see the light. Sometimes though, the atmosphere is such that no matter what you do, the negative outweighs the positive. In those cases, what is a body supposed to do? Having more fun isn’t an option because students can’t handle the extra freedom – well at least in a way that gets anything done, and doesn’t further delay those that still want to learn. So you are left either putting up with negative comments, disruptions, and a trickle down contamination, or exerting mind-numbing authority to force some sort of discipline.

Of course, idealists will have an answer that will work. To be honest though, once a relationship has been set, unless it is meaningful, there really is no incentive to try and fix it. Most student teacher relations are like this. Why bother changing who you are for something that only lasts 1 hour a day for 5 months? Once a dynamic has been developed, change is very difficult.

Ignoring the educational solutions and problems, I wonder what causes people to get to the point where they don’t care and don’t want to change? For my students, I think for many it is the realization that they aren’t going to pass unless they make a huge change that they are unwilling, or unable to do. But the development of a bad attitude has a number of triggers; triggers that I think are pretty universal to any bad attitude.

One trigger seems to be an apparent inability of other people to get it right. For students, it may be a complaint that the teacher just can’t explain the material on the board. From a teacher’s perspective it means that students get bogged down by a rather simple stumbling block, rather than trying to work around the problem. It might be that grade 9 math you thought you could get away with ignoring. Since a teacher can’t explain every possible step over and over again, no presentation will ever seem to make sense. In the church it may be that a leader just can’t explain an idea in a way that suits your frame of reference. Because of this, everything they try to do eventually seems rather pointless and flawed.

Another trigger occurs when you try and see what you can get away with. As mature as parents like to think their students are, most students view school as more a social than educational institution. Teachers are there to enforce the rules, students are there to see what they can get away with. Students feel quite comfortable lying directly to a teacher about homework, absences, etc because, well it is the teacher’s job to call them on it. In this case, the onus of control is definitely put on the authority figure. If this happens, anything that goes wrong must be the fault of another. In the church perhaps many see our leaders as being there to lead us to happiness and righteousness. If we aren’t getting there, perhaps we view it as the fault of our leaders’ directions. Perhaps some people also see some directions from the church as rather pointless and out of date. Ignoring these may unconsciously cause some to experiment with the limits of acceptable behaviour.

To me though, I think the biggest trigger occurs as hope is lost. Hope is the last straw we can hold on to. A belief that change is impossible makes even going through the motions seem useless. Attempts to get us on track are viewed as instigatory and intolerable. Believing that our actions have no effect on an outcome is a state that many students get into. While it is true that in many circumstances, actions won’t change an outcome (for example getting 95% on the last quiz of the year when you have a 28% average), actions aren’t’ always for an specific outcome. In school, and in life, many of the things we get taught have little intrinsic value. Their worth lies in what they force us to become. The point of most Math classes, really isn’t to get a 55% or 80%, it is to get us onto to something else. The whole reason the specifics have gotten chosen is because of their relation to a far reaching end goal. Belief that minutiae are more important than becoming will almost always result in despondency. Unfortunately the whole concept of becoming require a certain level of abstraction that often must get developed through, well minute details.

A circular development like this is always tough to deal with, especially if people have been around the loop long enough to loose the ability to jump out of it.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Absolute Leadership

Does it really make a difference if a leader has clear objectives, set goals, and refined thought about issues, even in significant issues? I think initially most people would say, of course it does. A lot of good can happen when the HT, VT, SS etc programs are running smoothly. But how *correct* do the leader’s ideas have to be in order to make this work?

A few months back I read Robert Keegan’s analysis of intelligence in war. An interesting conclusion he reached was that, for a variety of reasons, having accurate intelligence about a battle historically makes little or no difference to its outcome. While fairly contrary to common sense, he does go a ways to defend the point. For instance even in the risky German invasion of Crete, the Allied generals had all the German objectives and time tables marked well ahead of time. This was as thorough an intelligence coup as they ever was. Even though they came very close to repelling the Germans, the intelligence couldn’t swing the outcome, even though it was entirely based on surprise and deception.

While military intelligence does help generals prepare for what is coming, the real outcome of the battle lies in how the command structure and underlings have been trained. This is why the Werhmach’s use of manuever wafare made the Germans such formidable opponents. Since micromanagement isn’t a viable option in war, all the specifics in the world mean little. Even supposedly precise information may become useless as it gets interpreted from another frame of reference. A seemingly benign omission may make information useless, or even harmful.

I often tend to view revelation from leaders in this regard. The specifics have so many what if’s and caveats associated with them that they are great for looking back and kicking yourself with, but serve more as confidence pieces during real time events. What matters is what people are trained to do when confronted with a tough situation or unusual event. Appealing to *absolutes* that the Holy Ghost can reveal to us, is in my mind tantamount to expecting military intelligence to always win the battle. It definitely may make us feel better, but eventually it won’t come through when needed.

Now I firmly believe that God will always be there for us, but I doubt that we will always be in a position to listen, or more likely, understand what he is saying. Living on absolutes always sets one up for a fall if you truly interact with the outside world. To me, things in this world are so subjective and grey that constantly expecting *correct* revelations or guidance from even divinely inspired mortals should be well tempered with an ability to act for one’s self in a suitable manner.

So the question is why follow a leader if their inspiration is misled? The specific way that lower level church administration works is similar to war time intelligence. Because of this specifics eventually matter for little. What determines the eventual outcome is how well people respond to each other. It is how well they are able to achieve the overarching aims of a conflict. Hence, I think that for us in the church it only matters how charitable we are and how well we are able to help those around us. Specific directives are merely one way to try and get us to accomplish this.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Everyday Zealotry and Cultural Cults

What are the human institutions that we would consider most cult like? Most people would say it is the ultra right wing religious extremist. Some staunch conservatives would argue that many liberal groups like the anti-globalism crowd fit the bill. But what is it that makes a group or institution a cult? Previous discussion mentioned the fact that it may just be exceptional people joining a group that re-enforces specific extremes. However, don’t most groups encourage group defined behavioural expectations?

For instance, lets take a group of colorful university art students. Most are proud of their individuality and the freedom they feel to express themselves. Many like to express this freedom and individuality through particularly “artst” clothes, accessories, and behaviours. Belonging to this group usually requires similar expressions of “freedom”. Like many other science students, I found the irony in the position rather amusing. Of course many art students also found the behavioral code of the science majors equally as amusing. Stereotypes whether people want to admit it or not, usually develop for a reason. Useful ones also tend to apply to a sizeable portion of the group they assess.

Groups need something around which to coalesce. Often behavioural codes and attitudes reflect this coalescence. As these groups solidify, something within them seems to generate behavioural expectations, common mannerisms, similar world outlooks, language nuances, etc. The degree to which this happens, is of course a matter of opinion and study. Perhaps an example from the other night will help to illustrate this. Stupid Mormon games. Whether we are proud or ashamed to admit it or not, most members have at one time or another participate in this phenomenon.

For me, it was last demonstrated at a mormon party – a ubiquitous ceremony more mysterious than any temple rites could possibly be. Out of a group of 20 people, I knew the girl hosting the party and one other. The host’s roomate got everyone together to play a game. I could feel the dread creeping over me like a polyester sacrament sheet sliding over a pressboard altar. Some eyes darted around with a nervous twitch. For some, YSA family home evenings had foreshadowed what was about to unfold. Others were placid, still chewing their cheesecake cud. “Everyone hold out 10 fingers”. I attributed the growing excitement of the group to the naked fingers that were now exposed, erect and devoid of any matrimonial bands.

Instructions continued with a well rehearsed enthusiasm trained to motivate the most recalcitrant pubescent math student. “You need to say something that you have never done that other people have. If they have done it, they need to put down a finger, you then get to keep yours up”. While thoughts of the Jennifer Garner movie (30 going on 13) danced through my head, I knew a decision was at hand. This was not just a subtle interrogation technique designed to separate the outgoing or rebellious from the arrogant or timid. It was a test of my theories of cult behaviour. Either I somehow made a good show to keep my standing with the host I was vainly trying to date, or I would have to leave, sequestering myself in a prison of non-comformity and eternal celibacy.

To me the irony of the game was the only interesting thing. “10 fingers” or its equivalent social constructs are based on an open ended, informal way of judging social norms. They let people turn a group into a live version of the movie “The singles ward”. If you are wild we still accept you. You just fit the jack mormon side of our group. If you are uptight, you are still accepted, you just fit the molly side of the group. However, deviation gets accepted on one condition– people can figure out a reason for it. In other words, people know that you understand the unspoken rules of the game.

I could have said something like “I have played 10 fingers and never enjoyed it”. The resulting condrum people would have faced deciding if they too agreed with this statement would have expressed my disdain for mormon culture and secured my place in the group. Whether or not my response was kosher is beside the point. By participating I was expressing an understanding of the hidden cultural rules. I was giving others the chance to understand me. No matter how rebellious the answer, one would still be conforming. Anything is OK as long as you play by the group rules. The group can encourage everyone to take part, by accepting most any behaviour. All that is required is awareness of the unspoken rules. Basically it is “Do what you want, as long as we can understand it”. In broader terms it amounts to “anything is acceptable, as long as we can see that you are using the same memes that we are”. To me, this is the key point in everyday zealotry or cultural cults. (by definition memes are an unconscious way of looking at things. They are the “how could it ever be any different” type of thoughts. For liberals it may be things like “genocide is bad”, for conservatives it may be things like “liberals are short sighted” :)

Society is based on cults. It is the only way it can function. Society must be able to tolerate large differences between individuals, yet still have a glue that lets one treat their neighbours as them self. This can happen as long as we can see the motivations or reasons behind another’s actions. For instance when a serious crime is committed we somehow feel more at ease knowing why it was done. A murder in a neighbourhood isn’t nearly as disturbing if it is “solved”. If we know the underlying rules people play by, we can assume that behaviours within these bounds will be rational. Unexpected things won’t happen. In evolutionary terms, knowing that a neighbour won’t suddenly attack us out of the blue, lets us feel at ease with their presence. The more defined and consistently applied the underlying rules get, the more at stable we feel within that group. Now, I am not saying that behaviours have to be the same, only that the rules from which they arise have to be highly intelligible (again not necessarily in a conscious way).

So what are examples of these “societal cults” and institutions? From the 10 fingers example, I would say that there are a variety of levels. The smallest would be the nuclear family. Some people think that frequent arguments are a normal means of discussion. Telling someone off doesn’t really mean you want them gone, it is just a vehicle to express emotion. On the other side, a disapproving look by a parent may be all that is needed to send a child to their room crying. Unless the rules or memes are understood, you can’t function as a part of the family. Because memes are based on non-overt thinking patterns, it is very hard for outsiders to fit in. Because individuals are rarely aware of them, memes are difficult to teach. To become part of a family like this, you have to accept the underlying ground rules. Because this group is so small, the rules are usually fairly numerous and specific. Because so many memes are available from which to interpret action, a wide range of divergent behaviours can be accepted without loosing status as a member of the group. Here I would say that divergence is based on a standard deviation from the group (ie take the average distribution of all members and see how much an individual compares)

Peer groups also fit into the “societal cult mode. There is an underlying way of seeing the world that is usually common to a peer group. Members may have various ways of expressing this, but there is always some common basis for the group. Often members can be seen fitting into a normal distribution ala “The Singles Ward”. Members still have to be able to interpret your actions in a way that makes sense to their world view. In other words superficial things like wearing black, lots of makeup, and enjoying piercings, would still mean rejection from a Goth group if you could fundamentally not see anything wrong with the current hegemony and thought student body president or cheer leader was a noble aspiration.

As we move into larger social groups it seems like specific behaviours are used as a way to try and quickly judge what memes others are playing by. I don’t think behaviour is necessarily the trump card that determines whether or not one fits in. Instead I think it is what causes the behaviour that makes this determination. What this means is that cults are judged not on some arbitrary measure of “normalcy”, but instead on a level of rationality – rationality based on our memes and our world view. I would argue that any behaviour is rational from the frame of reference of the individual doing it. In fact I remember reading an interesting book that analyzed numerous “random” acts of violence to see why they were committed. Each had quite clear, though not immediately apparent motivations. Perhaps this is why some fundamentalist christians still consider mormons cultists. From their biblical inerrant frame of reference, the things mormons come up with may not be logical. We may look like we have the same values, morals and behaviours, but to them, our underlying rule book is incomprehensible. It may be like a Jesuit missionary trying to figure out blackfoot tribal religion. It just doesn’t make sense.

So how does this discussion of cults matter? If societal norms are cultish, and all cults are bad, then their influence on us is probably just a matter of degree. But how do we figure out the degree? I don’t think looking at the behaviours encouraged is very efficient. They may not reflect the memes underlying them. I also don’t think looking for perceived levels of conformity is very good. What may seem like conformity may just be an amalgamation of similar minded people. I think the degree of cultish influence in our lives is determined by how willing we are to go with the flow - in what ever venue or group this may be. Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean how likely we are to go along with superficial behaviours. Instead, it probably is how likely we are to conform our world views, our memes, to any given group. If playing “10 fingers” at a mormon party is incomprehensible to me, doing so to fit in is as cultish as donning an orange harri-krishna robe and shaving what is left of my hair.

Following this line of thinking through, perhaps the most important thing to be aware of with cults, is how much of my world view originates from them. If this is the case, the most powerful cults in the world are the ones that deal with our day to day lives. It is the social protocols and cultural biases we inherit from our society that are the most cult like. These create outlooks that we could never imagine being different. They are so fundamental to our way of being that we can barely identify what they are. They are so fundamental and important that there is no real way of escaping from their influence. They have as much, if not more, effect on our lives than the lunatic that believes their nose is a space alien giving them instructions as they sneeze.